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When deterrence doesn’t work

No one likes to be threatened, and yet we threaten and are threatened all the time. It’s a dark prospect, but the reality is that threats are the ocean in which we swim. And it’s not just human beings: animals, too, and even plants, engage in a great deal of threatening, endeavoring to change the behavior of other living things by, well, threatening that if they don’t relent, they’ll regret it.

And so, many plants have evolved thorns or toxic chemicals to keep predators away. As for animals, the manifestations of threat are immense. In some cases, the threat is built into a creature’s body, as with menacing teeth, horns, claws, and other structures devised by evolution to emphasize an animal’s dangerousness. And of course, most animals have some way of attempting to deter or otherwise influence others by exaggerating their competence and often, their ferocity. In others, the threat is more subtle, but no less effective, as with those animals that have evolved conspicuous warning coloration—typically dramatic (and often to the human eye, quite beautiful) color patterns that are easily noticed and, if need-be, learned by a potential predator, which then avoids whoever is carrying such advertising because the bearers are liable to be bad-tasting or even lethally poisonous.

Intriguingly, once the biological door is opened to such threats, another evolutionary option is also made available: insofar as there is a payoff to being perceived as dangerous—whether via fighting capacity or internal biochemistry—the prospect beckons for evolutionary dishonesty to evolve. Why not exaggerate your capabilities as well as your intentions, thereby gaining the benefit of getting others to defer without having to actually invest in the underlying machinery (which is often metabolically expensive), or running the risk of having to actually back up your intimidating claims? In fact, many living things do just this, putting on a threatening show that is, at bottom, no more than a show. But this tactic carries its own drawbacks, notably the prospect of having your bluff called! The result is a series of evolutionary arms races, or cat-and-mouse games, in which individuals benefit by issuing threats insofar as recipients are especially inclined to take them seriously because the consequences of ignoring or challenging them could be severe. At the same time, however, when such communication is bluster (i.e., “dishonest”), there can be a payoff to calling the bluff… which, in turn, conveys a cautionary brake on threat-conveyers going too far. This dynamic plays out for many animals, including birds, mammals, even fish and, notably, snapping shrimp, whose “snaps” tell a memorable tale.

The harmless Scarlet Kingsnake mimics the appearance of the poisonous Coral Snake to avoid predation. (Image by Peter Paplanus)

Threats are of course prominent among human beings, too: do this, or else! Alternatively: don’t do that, or else! Child-rearing is a frequent although regrettable domain of threat giving and receiving. So is the arena of childhood bullying. Above inter-individual threats, the phenomenon is perhaps at its most dramatic at the social level. The punishment of criminals has an ancient and often bloody history, motivated in part by the perception (more like a hope) that by threatening dire consequences for serious crimes, people will be prevented from transgressing in the first place. This is italicized in the especially tragic case of capital punishment. The evidence is overwhelming that executions do not reduce rates of murder, rape, treason, or the like, and yet, belief in the efficacy of this grotesque threat persists (although in diminishing popularity), especially in the US.

Another widespread threat is of eternal damnation—literally “hell to pay”—for sinners, long employed by many religious traditions as a way to subjugate believers and get them to behave “better.” To some extent, this works, although almost certainly at great psychological cost. The social dimension of threats includes reactions to threats no less than the employment of them. For example, the gun culture that has recently erupted in the US has emerged in large part as a reaction by those who feel threatened and whose response (the immense proliferation of lethal weaponry) has paradoxically amplified whatever threats they may perceive, reflected in a grotesquely high rate of gun deaths compared to all other “first world” countries. A similar paradox is found in the peculiar case of right-wing populist nationalism, in which responding to threats has often backfired and made things worse for its supporters. This is notably true, once again, in the US, where white Trump supporters—feeling under socio-economic and racial threat—have in fact suffered most severely under policies promoted by their ostensible savior.

Finally, there is the greatest socially generated threat of all: nuclear deterrence.

It is nothing but threat writ large, namely that if they are attacked, a victim’s retaliation will be so devastating as to prevent any such attack in the first place. Although it appears superficially logical, nuclear deterrence is now and has always been a snare and a delusion; moreover, an unacceptably dangerous one.

It has been said that the Emperor Deterrence has no clothes but is still Emperor. In undressing deterrence, we can reveal the nakedness of this particular monarch, notably by identifying a number of skeletons in its closet:

  1. The logical fallacy and historical misrepresentations that have claimed that “deterrence works
  2. The inherent impossibility of establishing any reasonable limit to the question “how much threat is enough?” In other words, at what point can a nuclear country stop building yet more nuclear weaponry?
  3. The unacceptable danger that deterrence will fail, as evidenced by the many occasions when it has come terrifyingly close to doing so
  4. The paradox that the problem of “credibility”, which arises because the threat to use nuclear weapons is so devastating to foe and friend alike that it is necessarily lacking in credibility, has induced the development of weaponry that is more useable… which in turn counter-productively makes it more likely to be used
  5. The progression toward “counterforce targeting” (aiming at the nuclear weapons of a potential opponent), which raises an increasing prospect that in the event of a crisis, the potential victim, thinking that it might be attacked because its supposed deterrent is undermined, could well be tempted to strike first, leading to a chain of instability in which each side feels impelled to pre-empt the other
  6. The fact that deterrence assumes that in conditions of extreme tension, national leaders will respond with careful and detailed rationality, whereas everything that we know of human behavior indicates that this would not be the case
  7. The fact that deterrence assumes sanity on the part of world leaders, yet another assumption that a familiarity with world history shows to be a fallacy
  8. The well-documented reality that issuing nuclear threats simply does not work, even against non-nuclear countries
  9. The extent to which deterrence itself has been the primary justification for maintaining nuclear arsenals and in many ways accelerating their lethality and the likelihood that rather than preventing their use, they will someday be used
  10. The fact that even threatening an action that would be devastating to the survival of life on earth is itself deeply immoral, as testified by most of the world’s great religious and ethical traditions.

Threats are some of the most important and intellectually challenging phenomena of all time, calling out for greater understanding and, one can hope, wisdom.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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